I was chatting to a Cardiff City fan at work today.
She was telling me how Vincent Tan had agreed to change the club’s colours back to blue. The conversation soon turned to how it is the natural inclination of the average football fan to complain about absolutely anything. Which, I think you’ll agree, it is.
It’s more than an inclination, it’s a right, right? (Ian)
It’s in this spirit that I present you with this article concerning the conundrum facing Arsène Wenger as he considers the embarrassment of riches in the Arsenal midfield. How very Gooner to complain about the one area that we don’t need to complain about.
Yeah, I know, let’s dive in.
It seemed that last season (actually towards the end of the 2012-13 season), with Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta at the base, the manager had hit on a reasonably balanced central midfield partnership.
Combining the discipline and tactical nous of the skipper with the dynamism and goalscoring prowess of a rejuvenated Aaron Ramsey saw Arsenal win a hell of a lot more matches than than they lost- although, obviously we were still handed the odd beating. In front of them, a combination of der Germans, Cazorla and, for a half season each, the Ox and Theo, was enough to keep opposing defences honest.
One FA Cup win and the signing of Alexis later, the equation appears to have changed somewhat.
How can it be that we have signed a superstar of world football and yet the team appears to have gone backwards?
It’s only logical
Well, I think the simplest, most logical, explanation (if only there was a term for this) is the switch to a one man shield in front of the defence. Particularly as that one man is either Mikel Arteta- one leg, he’s only got one leg- or Mathieu Flamini- the man who has become, in the words of Gary Neville, a “commentator”. It’s interesting that the return of Francis Coquelin, a genuine defensive midfielder who can also, y’know, both play and run around a bit, has seen a bit of an improvement in front of our defence.
Why have we halved the number of babysitters in front of the defence? Clearly, it is so the man who collects tricky midfielders like George Graham once collected centre backs can create room for his creative players to shine.
In theory anyway; we have seen that the reality this season is a perfect illustration of the phrase that begins “Too many cooks…”
I have complained in the past that, no matter what you put at the front of the team; if the base of it isn’t right, you’re not going to get anywhere.
Again, the run towards the end of the 2013 season saw a tacit admission of this fact, with Arsenal sacrificing flamboyance in a series of 1-0 wins which must have thrilled George Graham. Yet here we are a year and a half later and shipping goals for fun.
I think that if, in the summer, you had told Alexis he would be on his way to a 30 goal season, he would have expected this team to be doing a little better than we are.
It is possible, of course, that in Alexis Sanchez we have a player who, as everyone else has dropped around him, has assumed a talismanic status more Ian Wright than Thierry Henry. Henry was a superstar in a team of world class players. Ian Wright was so lethal (and the midfield behind him so pedestrian) that, for a few years at least, Arsenal’s game plan could be best summed up as “Get the ball to Wrighty, quick!”
However, I think it’s safe to say that this Arsenal midfield has a bit more about them than their predecessors of twenty years past. At least, they would do, if deployed in an effective fashion.
Give Coq a chance
So, here’s where I start throwing solutions at you.
The obvious, number one solution to our midfield malaise is to sign a proper defensive midfielder. Not just a squad player, someone who can come in and relegate Mikel Arteta to “twenty minutes left, we’re 2-0 up, let’s play keep ball status”.
I feel such a signing in this window, at least a marquee type signing is probably not going to happen unless all the stars align. Therefore, if we are going to persist with this 4-1-4-1, I would like to see Francis Coquelin given a proper chance to show whether or not he could provide a long term solution in the holding role.
It seems to me that, allowing for form and fitness, the four midfielders in front of the holding player are almost certain to be Alexis and Ozil- you don’t spend £80 on players to leave them on the bench, with Aaron Ramsey and either Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere or Arteta alongside him.
Obviously, of those three I’d go for Santi because I think he is a better footballer than the other two but I’m not sure it’s a long term solution. It also means that Theo and the Ox are on the outside looking in- remember this in the utopia of a fully fit squad.
I don’t know about you, but this just doesn’t look, or feel, right to me.
I feel fairly certain that the best solution to our woes is to restore the two man block in midfield and give our three attacking midfielders a platform to produce from. After all, it’s not as if playing at the base of midfield prevented Aaron Ramsey from being both babysitter and serial killer (scary mask and large kitchen knife optional), is it?
I would then pair him either with Arteta, who has less running to do here as he has Ramsey next to him, or Coquelin whose defensive prowess could further liberate the Welshman. The idea of playing Jack here is nice, but I feel that, as both he and Aaron are naturally forward looking players, they are probably not a good fit. Ramsey has proven to be the most effective player so far, so he should get the nod.
Ahead of him, we should either allow one of the best #10s in world football to do his job properly, or play Santi Cazorla behind the striker. It seems some have forgotten how effective the smallest player in the Premier League was in that position during his first season. I haven’t. In fact, I’m almost tempted to say he should play at #10 instead of Ozil. It seems bananas to me that we spent a combined total of £52m on these great players only to then do away with the #10 altogether.
Think about it; why banish your two most creative players to the periphery? It makes no sense.
Of course, at a push, I’d find space for Santi wide. But then, with Alexis obviously on the other side, there’s still no room for Theo, or the Ox. And I think one of them has to play.
And that’s not taking into account the fact that Arsene clearly loves Jack and then there’s Tomas and Serge and Abou (oh, Abou..!)
We need to talk about Jack
This is, as I have already caveated, a piece looking at a, probably non existent, time when we have all of our midfield options available.
Ironically, Santi Cazorla’s return to centre stage and his, in no way coincidental, return to form has probably only come about because of injuries. So, it’s unlikely that anyone in that midfield area will ever be missing out for long.
Even a player like Jack Wilshere who, skillful though he undoubtedly is, is faced with superior competition in almost every position in the Arsenal midfield. Even in the position he occupies for England, I think we have recently seen the benefit of having someone there who is a natural defensive midfielder.
I don’t say this to slam Jack, he is what he is- a supremely talented attacking midfielder, apparently made of fibreglass. I think there will always be a role for him at Arsenal, but I wonder now if it’s the role that Jack looked like he was going to have four or five years ago?
Time will tell.